Happy New Year, bookies! January is our long-awaited history month, in which we shall delve deep into the mysteries of events long past. As usual, there were a large number of enticing nominations, and I had a difficult time winnowing them down to six books. This is, as it happens, one of my favorite parts of the 1book140 process. I get to spend hours perusing book reviews and literary blog posts discovering new books, applying a (more or less arbitrary) set of qualifications to determine our short list. Some manner of diversity is always paramount; in this case I tried to create a diversity of both historical period (the chosen books cover three millenia) and approach (both popular and academic histories). I passed over widely read books--like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals--in favor of less well-known gems. Finally, I apologize for the abbreviated schedule. We'll close voting down around 5 PM on Monday, January 2nd, and try to push through the book in the last three weeks of January.
Jerusalem: A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore
I read the author's two-part biography of Stalin and walked away deeply impressed. His latest, a three-thousand-year history of a city that figures at the heart of three of the world's major religions, has won accolades all around. From the Guardian review: "Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality."
Longitude by Dava Sobel
In 1714 the British Parliament launched the world's first crowdsourcing contest--offering some $12 million (in today's dollars) to anyone who could solve the most stubborn scientific dilemma of its day--the determination of a ship's longitude. Sobel's story of John Harrison, the unknown clockmaker who eventually snagged the prize, is "full of gems for anyone interested in history, geography, astronomy, navigation, clockmaking, and--not the least--plain old human ambition and greed." (Philadelphia Enquirer)
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Even if, unlikely chance, you've never heard of Zinn's retelling of American history through the eyes of labor leaders, socialists, and civil rights activists, you've absorbed his ideas. The hugely influential 1980 National Book Award nominee set the discourse for revisionist US history. From the The Chronicle of Higher Education: Critics "would be remiss not to note the value of A People's History, along with its limitations. Zinn told tales well, stories that, while familiar to historians, often remained unknown to wider publics. He challenged national pieties and encouraged critical reflection about received wisdom." As a handbook of the Occupy movements, the relevance of Zinn's masterwork is undiminished.
March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman
Longtime bookies know my fondness for Tuchman's other, better-known books, The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror. March of Folly takes a thematic, rather than periodic, tact: Tuchman looks at four periods in world history--The Trojan Horse, The Protestant Secession, The American Revolution, and The American War in Vietnam--and how powerful leaders, against all odds, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in each case.
Decisive Moments in History by Stefan Zweig
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz